Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

I grabbed the chance to watch The Desolation of Smaug on Monday night. This is something my demi-Swede would like to see also, but I figured I’d happily watch it again with her. After driving back from Yorkshire I was in need of some telly time, and had been very much looking forward to the movie.

Damn shame to say, I was disappointed. I’ve read several reviews that rate this the better of the two Hobbit films thus far, but I reckon not. There are plenty of story choices I could pick apart here (Thirty orcs invade a city that becomes conveniently deserted for the sake of a fight! Smaug immediately guesses the provenance of Bilbo’s ring! Middle-earth is as easily travelled as it needs to be! The story suddenly shifts to a quest for the Arkenstone! Smaug the Golden has to be actually coated in gold! Repetition of the virtues of Athelas because we need fan-service winks! etc). I don’t want to write up a long screed that sings out “But it was different from the book! That makes it rubbish!” It does not. Cinema is different to literature. And my objections are personal, therefore their legitimacy is at the mercy of your judgment. After all, my dislike stems from one thing: The film Jackson made is not the kind of film I expected The Hobbit to become.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was, on the whole, a meticulous and considered adaptation of the source material for the screen. Tolkien’s message, though much obscured, is still present. There’s an air of painstaking art about the books, and an air of painstaking art about their adaptations. The Hobbit adaptation feels altogether sloppier. Jackson appears to want two things: Firstly, to make an action movie, secondly, to provide a prequel to his Rings films. But The Hobbit, though blessed with action, would better suit an adventure movie not an action movie format, while the presaging of events of The Lord of The Rings − which I agree with in principle − proves clumsy.

As in Jackson’s King Kong remake, there is much to admire − in this case Smaug, the elves and Thranduil in particular were effective − but like the ape epic there’s altogether too much going on, too many ideas fighting for time, too many “wouldn’t it be so frickin’ cool!” sequences. There’s plenty in the book to make two good films, not three. Sadly, even in making three, Jackson eschews the opportunity the extra running time allows for character beats, filling up his minutes with bonus orc chases and people falling off things (like, come on! What is it with you man?). There is a fair bit of material in the second section of the book that didn’t make onto the screen at all, Bilbo’s role in particular is bizarrely sidelined. Odd, given that changes to the material in the first film appropriately gave his actions greater emphasis.

The biggest addition, Tauriel, I expected. Her almost-romance with Legolas I expected. And I was glad to see that actually, she worked rather well as a character. What I didn’t expect was the weirdly reciprocated infatuation Fili had with her, coming to fruition in his surprise sojourn in Laketown (what was that all about other than a way to give key dwarfs more to do?).

It’s a movie crammed with unlikely acts of superheroic acrobatics and clownish pratfalls, whose design − while awe-inspiring in parts − takes Middle-earth nearer to the whimsy of Hogwarts than the majesty of Arda. If I were to hazard a reason for all this filmic flimflammery, it’d be this: The Lord of The Rings series had effects that were groundbreaking. Their mere execution was enough to wow, leaving Jackon’s not inconsiderable talents free to work on other aspects of storytelling. Now such magic is commonplace, Jackson as a showman seeks to bedazzle us with added… Well, added things falling off other things, mainly. Or maybe he simply has the opportunity to do MORE COOL SHIT. Either way, all good ringmasters know three elephants are better than one. A perhaps apt analogy, because, let’s put it like this, this film is Legolas surfing the Mumak over and over again.

It probably needs a second viewing, this initial opinion may mellow, but I’m not so sure that I do want to watch The Desolation of Smaug again. (Sorry Emma).

As a last minor irritation, The Desolation of Smaug really quite unexpectedly

I wrote this piece for Death Ray #16, back in 2008. The War of the Worlds is the best science fiction album of all time (er, not that it’s a massive field), so it was a great interview to do.


It’s the 30th Anniversary of one of the most successful music albums ever: Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. Wayne himself opens telephonic communications and humbles us with sound.

We see more stories told with pictures and words in these pages, but there are other ways of conveying a tale. SF stretches its oily tendrils into all arenas of popular culture, including music.

Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is one of the most popular records of all time. It has spent 260 weeks in the UK top ten. It has sold 13 million copies worldwide. It’s right up there with Michael Jackson and Abba, an astounding achievement for a musical retelling of a story now over a century old.  96 minutes long, a collision of disco electronica, stentorian narration, symphonic orchestration, song and bleeping sound effects, The War of the Worlds is an unlikely candidate for one of the world’s best-loved musical works, but somehow it is thoroughly brilliant. (more…)

Book two of the Heart of the World series. From SFX #212, published in 2011.

Four stars

417 pages

Author: Col Buchanan

Publisher: Tor

Evil hedonists take on island democrats

Buchanan’s entertaining Heart of the World series continues with an invasion of Bar-Khos by the Empire of Mann. Meanwhile, super-ninja Ash tracks the wicked Matriarch, and Mannian assassin Ché begins to doubt his loyalties.

Stands a Shadow offers plenty –battles, genocide, shipwreck, intrigue, and compelling new characters. Buchanan’s writing is strong; even if he undermines the effect of his descriptive powers by being equally descriptive of plant pots as he is of sieges, he creates occasional moments of total immersion for the reader.

The shoddy geography and linguistics of his world irritate as much as the first time round, and a worrying promise of things to come threatens to undo the power of the first book’s brave finale.

But although one wishes the author would paper over the joins between the tale’s elements more skilfully, we’re discussing the finish. The underlying construction is sound, the story gripping. With steampunk, magical, and historical influences, this is one of the most refreshing new fantasies out there.

Did you know?

Farlander, book one of The Heart of the World, won the David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy in 2010. Well done there, Mr Buchanan.

This is the second of two interviews I’ve done with Raymond E. Feist, conducted in late spring 2008 for Death Ray #12. He’s a somewhat bombastic, very talkative man, yet unlike some of the “white male writers with beards” contingent I’ve spoken to, his self-confidence (and he is supremely self-confident) never tips over into offensive arrogance. Further points in his favour are his candour, and his professionalism (as far as one can judge it from outside).

I loved his books as an adolescent, but got bored after five or so of them. Although this is standard for me with most writers, in this case it was part of a wider process of disenchantment with epic fantasy. I abandoned the genre in the late 1980s, not returning to it until I began working on SFX in 1997, and then only under sufferance. A combination of my own developing tastes and my urge to experience new worlds and new writers, I suppose. More frankly, I kept reading book after book that was just awful. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy fantasy, and read more of it now than I did. But unlike science fiction, it’s harder to find fantasy’s gems amid the dreck. For a long while I became exhausted looking for them.

You could point at Feist, with his umpteen books, as the bannerman for the franchisation of the genre and its domination by an industry standard of tediously predictable frolics, but so what? More power to him. He writes stories people enjoy, and is rewarded for it. That’s the way it should be. And he is, let it be said, among the better multi-book fantasy saga writers.

Speaking to Feist is a bit like being hit by a very large wave. Overwhelming but fun. When all’s said and done, he’s very hard not to like.

He’s one of the top-selling fantasy authors on the planet, a powerhouse of prose whose 24-book (and growing) Riftwar cycle dwarfs those of even the most prolific author. A real magician of words, He’s Raymond E. Feist, and he likes to talk.

At twenty-four books long, the Riftwar saga is one of the most extensive of all the grand fantasy epics. Written by Californian Raymond E. Feist over a period of more than 30 years, Riftwar began with the smash hit Magician, first published in 1982. Magician is typical of the genre, a huge fat wedge of a book. Beginning with the story of an orphaned boy, Pug, before opening up to cover a decade of interplanetary war. Feist’s books are not art with a capital “A” (his own words), they’re derived from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting he and his friends created while they were at university in San Diego, and contain the full Tolkien menagerie of Elves, Dwarves and so forth. So far, so familiar.

Where they are not typical is in their expert artifice. Feist is a master of fast-paced epic storytelling, his characters are heroic but mortal, struggling through massive wars with enemies both human and monstrous who gain access to his the world of Midkemia via magical “rifts” (we’re talking a wizardly stargate here). Magician is a masterclass in storytelling, a sweeping epic which sees Midkemia plunged into chaos as men from the world of Kelewan invade without warning. Caught up in the decade-long conflict are the boy Pug and his adopted brother Tomas both of whom, by different paths, become powerful men. Feist’s books are set against an intricate backdrop which, though initially it appears to have been drawn from the usual catalogue of fantasylands, is a superior example of the type. On the cover of his latest Wrath of a Mad God, a quote describes his work as “A guilty pleasure”. That this grudging praise comes from The Guardian newspaper says it all – this guy is good at what he does. (more…)

In a fannish, book-loving way, of course. Although from his pictures he’s an imposing figure of a man even late in life, I have to admit.

I’ve had a quick, palate-cleansing break from my big pile of Black Library catch-up reading, and wolfed down Lion Time in Timbuctoo by Silverberg. Here’s a quick review of it I posted on Goodreads. (more…)

This is a crazy nuts time of year. This is the way it usually goes: Coast out of Christmas, finish off the previous year’s work, hustle for this year’s work, get rained on, get struck down by successive waves of germs brought home by Benny, fill in a ton of forms various organisations I work for all need at once, become enraged by the changes various organisations I use wreak on their services all at once (and without warning), pay my tax (HOWL!) and get mildly miserable owing to a paucity of sunlight. I think I’ll be taking those vitamin D tablets again. (more…)